During the Great War, the Reverend David Railton witnessed first-hand the brutality of combat. As a British Military Chaplain along the Western Front, he officiated at the burials of countless unidentified soldiers. It was a chance encounter passing a soldier’s grave in France, however, that sparked an idea that would eventually lead to the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey in London.
In 1916, Railton was walking through a back garden at Erkingham, near Armentières in France, when he saw a rough cross on which were penciled the words, “An Unknown British Soldier.” Knowing that many other graves held the remains of young soldiers whose final resting place would never be known, Railton had an idea. After the war, he returned home and wrote to Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster Abbey. He suggested a permanent memorial to those who had fallen in the Great War. Through his determination and persistence, Railton’s idea started to take root.
In November 1920, as the second anniversary of the signing of the Armistice approached, plans got underway to honor the unknown war dead by burying one unidentified soldier at a special memorial in Westminster Abbey. He would represent all those who died for their country, but whose burial place was not known, or whose body remained unidentified. Although accounts vary, it is generally believed that on November 7, 1920, between four and six bodies were exhumed from battlefields along the Western Front and transported to a church in northern France. The commander of British troops in France chose one soldier, and his body was placed in a coffin and covered with a flag that Railton had used as an altar cloth during the war. That same flag, known as the Ypres or Padre’s flag, now hangs in St. George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. The other bodies were reburied.
In a show of respect, Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander during the war, offered a long and solemn salute as the coffin left the shores of France. The HMS Verdun transported the casket to Dover. From Dover, the casket was placed in a railcar and ceremoniously transported to London. Large and solemn crowds greeted the train as it arrived at Victoria Station.
On November 11, 1920, a procession followed the coffin of the Unknown Warrior. They first went to the Cenotaph, where King George V unveiled the new war memorial on Whitehall in London. Then, with the King joining the procession, they followed the coffin to Westminster Abbey, where the unknown soldier was ceremoniously laid to rest. Within a week, more than a million people visited the site to pay their respects. The Guardian, a London newspaper, noted that every mourner envisioned the unknown soldier as his or her family member. The tomb is inscribed with the following text, “They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house.”
Remembrance Day 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. If you would like to search our international WWI military records, see collections from the United Kingdom; United States; Canada; Australia; and New Zealand on Fold3.